Friday, October 12, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1927-1928

The Contenders:

Gloria Swanson: Sadie Thompson
Janet Gaynor: Seventh Heaven (winner)
Louise Dresser: A Ship Comes In
Janet Gaynor: Street Angel (winner)
Janet Gaynor: Sunrise (winner)

What’s Missing

I knew I had to get to these early awards eventually, and rather than have them all bunched up at the end, I thought I might as well start now. It’s actually pretty difficult to figure out what was eligible for an Oscar for the first ceremony. The second Oscars covered August, 1928 through July 1929; the sources I can find suggest that the first Oscars covered all of 1927 and 1928. What I figured was that I’d use all of 1927 and the first seven months of 1928, the last five being relegated to the next Oscar ceremony. That being the case, there are a number of performances I really think could have been here. Wings is considered the first ever Best Picture winner, so I’m surprised that no one thought to nominate Clara Bow. Oscar began its set against horror and science fiction right away, explaining the absence of Joan Crawford for The Unknown and Brigitte Helm for Metropolis. The Crowd and Eleanor Boardman seem like a natural nomination, though, especially with three for Janet Gaynor. And where the hell is Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc? Evidently, you could only be considered if your movie started with the letter "S."

Weeding through the Nominees

5. With three nominations, it was probably inevitable that Janet Gaynor was going to win this first Oscar. That being the case, I have no issues with dumping Street Angel right away. The film itself is nothing but pure melodrama, and Gaynor isn’t asked to do anything but be waifish. I understand that the Academy likely wanted this award to go where it did, and that’s fine, but there were other actresses who could have stood a little love getting a nomination in the first award ceremony. This performance didn’t deserve the honor.

4. I love the fact that there were at least some people nominated who weren’t Janet Gaynor, but I don’t have a great deal to say about Louise Dresser’s performance other than the fact that she is generally overshadowed by Rudolph Schildkraut. She has some clear emotional moments in the film that are almost certainly where she earned the nomination, but there’s just not enough here for me to really consider her that seriously. Again, this is a nomination that could have easily been put to better use. Let’s chalk it up to inexperience by the nomination committee.

3. Gloria Swanson was a real talent, and Sadie Thompson was a good look at her at this point in her career. I didn’t like this movie much because of its heavy and creepy religious overtones. I do like Swanson, though, and Sadie Thompson is especially interesting because of how it affects a viewing of Sunset Blvd. I like that she was nominated even if I don’t love the actual performance. Gloria Swanson classes the place up and is at least an interesting counterpoint to all of the Janet Gaynor.

2. One of the reasons I hate that Street Angel earned a nomination here is that Gaynor didn’t need it. Her other two performances were the best of the nominations by a clear margin. Seventh Heaven is an interesting movie for a number of reasons. It’s also Gaynor’s movie from the moment she appears until the end. There are a lot of reasons I liked this one, and she’s a large part of it. Even without her final nomination, I’d be inclined to give her this Oscar, at least based on the nominations themselves.

1. It’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans for which Janet Gaynor really won this Oscar in my opinion. Admittedly, the film is pure melodrama, but it’s of a significant artistic value that it’s impossible to deny as a story. Gaynor is a big part of that, and a big part of why the film works at all. While I stand by the fact that the middle of the film is too damn long and unnecessary, there’s a great deal of good work here from everyone involved, specifically Gaynor. In the closed field we have, this is why she wins.

My Choice

But it’s not a closed field on this blog, so my vote goes elsewhere. Assuming that I can use the entirety of 1927 to pull nominations from, the only place I can put this award is in the hands of Maria Falconetti for The Passion of Joan of Arc, a cinematic experience that is the closest I have been to a spiritual experience in the last decade. Honestly, Janet Gaynor wasn’t a terrible choice, and if Falconetti wasn’t eligible for some reason, I don’t hate that this ended up in Gaynor’s hands. But it should have been Falconetti’s, and if she wasn’t eligible, they should have changed the damn rules.

Final Analysis


  1. These silent years are so hard to judge not just because of the weird hump year thing but so many of the films are lost or survive only in fragmentary form it's hard to feel you've been able to see everything that might qualify.

    Obviously somebody or bodies loved Janet Gaynor and wanted her to have the thing but she really was deserving out of this small clutch of women. I agree Swanson has her moments in Sadie Thompson but there wasn't the variety of emotion that Gaynor brought to both 7th Heaven or Sunrise.

    However three nominations is insane, since it was the first year you would think they could have parceled out the nominations as more of a year's body of work deal if they felt someone turned out that much good work. Heaven knows in the studio era a star turning out three starring vehicles in a year wasn't unusual, four or five were more the norm unless your name was Greta Garbo.

    I don't really have many others to suggest outside those you already did. All the names and performances that came to mind, Lillian Gish in The Wind, Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters, Marion Davies in Show People, Betty Compson in The Docks of New York, etc. came in the second half of '28.

    However speaking of Garbo she did have a hit with a reworking of Anna Karenina called Love (it was a reteaming with John Gilbert after the mega success of Flesh & the Devil the year before that MGM originally intended to call Heat until they thought about how "Greta Garbo & John Gilbert in HEAT" would look on marquees) and she was white hot so it's surprising she wasn't nominated. Clara Bow was better in Wings but she was very appealing in "It" in 1927, but the film was a comedy apparently already considered second class and even though she was big box office she wasn't treated well by her studio and never really taken seriously by the industry at large which probably explains her exclusion.

    I didn't love The Passion of Joan of Arc as much as most people do but Falconetti was extraordinary. It being the initial year the studios probably only looked at their product which would explain why she was ignored.

    1. I feel in some sense a bit underqualified to make the choices in these early years, but since I started this regular feature, I figured I should dive in. I looked up Betty Compson for this, but Docks of New York, as you say, came out too late for this Oscars.

      You're probably right on the lack of nomination for Falconetti. The exclusion of Bow is more inexplicable. I haven't seen the Garbo film, but it's one I'll look for.

  2. I am one of the few people who do not swoon over Jeanne d'Arc and Falconetti. It never worked that well with me, though I do recognize that Falconetti was good a expressing her emotions with her face.
    As a movie I am far more impressed with Sunrise. I just don't know if Gaynor is the reason. I suppose it was a movie where everything fell in place and demonstrated what silent movies could do.
    Frankly, I would be in doubt where to place the Oscar.

    1. I can see that, even if I don't disagree. I think The Passion of Joan of Arc is monumental.

      Truthfully, Gaynor isn't a bad choice. Assuming that Falconetti wasn't nominated because the committee didn't really look outside of American films, she'd be hard to top.